The Day The Music Died

The Day The Music Died Turns 55

To fully comprehend the tragic music history that unfolded 55 years ago Monday, one needs to understand the circumstances surrounding  it and how it affected at least one generation of pop music fans. In his 1972 #1 hit, Don McLean’s “American Pie” called it “The Day The Music Died.”

In the early morning hours of February 3, 1959, a small airplane

crashed not long after takeoff near Clear Lake, Iowa. Killed were

Buddy Holly (center photo), Ritchie Valens (far right photo) and the Big Bopper (left left photo), who was also known as

J.P. (Jape) Richardson. In looking back on the tragedy, many think

three were killed in the crash but the number was actually four. The

pilot, Roger Peterson, also perished. The crash happened a few hours

after a Winter Dance Party Tour performance at Clear Lake's Surf

Ballroom. To this day, there are annual Winter Dance Party reunion

concerts every year at about this time in Clear Lake.


The reasons for the ill-fated flight were at least two-fold. Holly

wanted to get caught up on cleaning his clothes at a laundromat at

the city of destination, Fargo, North Dakota, which was near the next

tour stop, Moorhead, Minnesota. He couldn't find a laundromat in

Clear Lake. Plus, they also wanted to escape having to ride on the

tour bus. That bus was so cold that often newspapers were burned just

to keep warm. A backup singer, Carl Bunch, even suffered from

frostbite and had to be briefly hospitalized.


The year 1959 would end the 1950's, the decade with the most dramatic

change in pop music direction ever. The 1950's would begin with easy

listening or middle-of-the-radio music dominating the scene. It was

the followup to the 1940's, where big band music ruled. So, the

1950's began with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Tony

Bennett, the Weavers, Teresa Brewer, Eddie Fisher, Bing Crosby, Les

Paul and Mary Ford, Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney and Johnnie Ray

dominating the music charts.


The decade would end with the likes of Elvis Presley, Fats Domino,

the Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Pat

Boone, the Platters, Paul Anka, Connie Francis, Frankie Avalon and

Lloyd Price. Legendary disc jockey Alan Freed led the way, coining

the term "Rock And Roll," to describe the newer fresher music that

would explode onto the scene. Freed didn't invent the term; he

popularized it. After all, we had a 1934 single release by the

Boswell Sisters entitled, "Rock And Roll."


We had some rock era passings prior to February 3, 1959. For instance, Johnny 

Ace was only 25 when he died Christmas Eve, 1954, backstage in

Houston in an incident involving Russian Roulette. And in the spring

of 1958, Chuck Willis, The King of the Stroll, was a mere 30 when he

died of a bleeding ulcer. Willis' hits included "C.C. Rider," the

song Elvis Presley would open his 1970's concerts with.


"The Day The Music Died," though, was rock and roll music's first true

tragedy. This writer was in the seventh grade when it happened. A day

or two later, while waiting with others in the wintry cold for a

shuttle bus, somebody mentioned how over 100 people died in a plane

crash. At that point, I asked about the plane crash that killed

Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper. Somebody yelled out, "Only three

people died in that crash! NOBODY'S going to remember that crash."


Charles Hardin Holley was only 22 when he died. His last name would

lose the "e" when a record contract left the letter out. Buddy

Holly's impact on pop music was so great that he was among the first

induction class for the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. He

fronted the group, the Crickets, who in turn were among the first

rock groups ever to feature a lead guitarist. In the late summer and

early fall of 1957, the group borrowed a line from a John Wayne

western movie, "The Searchers," and took "That'll Be The Day" to #3

on the Cash Box pop singles chart. Buddy's followup, "Peggy Sue," a

solo effort, reached #3. The song was based on a real Peggy Sue

Gerron, who married Crickets' drummer Jerry Allison.


The Crickets nearly had two more Top tenners but "Oh Boy" peaked at

#13 and "Maybe Baby" reached #11. Holly's last top 40 hit while he

was still alive was the #25 peaking "Early In The Morning." He would

have a #30 posthumous top 40 hit with "It Doesn't Matter Anymore," which

Paul Anka wrote.


Holly's impact on rock music can also be shown with how so many of

his songs would be remade later on. Compiling a complete list is

impossible but here's some that come to mind: Linda Ronstadt had

remake hits with "That'll Be The Day" and "It Doesn't Matter

Anymore." The ballad "True Love Ways" was a #13 hit in 1965 for the

British duo Peter And Gordon and would also be remade by Mickey

Gilley. The Bobby Fuller Four had a minor #51 hit in 1966 with

"Love's Made A Fool Of You." The Rolling Stones and Tanya Tucker

would remake "Not Fade Away." The Rivieras and the Nitty Gritty Dirt

Band would redo "Oh Boy." Plus, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band would

remake "Rave On" along with Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen

and John Mellencamp. Buddy Holly’s music would inspire the Beatles among many others.


Richard Valenzuela was only 17 when he died on February 3, 1959. As

Ritchie Valens, he first hit with the #51 song, "Come On, Let's Go,"

which would be a remake hit for the McCoys and Los Lobos. Then came

his biggest hit, "Donna," which nearly became a #1 posthumous hit,

reaching #2 on the Cash Box pop chart. The song was Ritchie

expressing his feelings about a high school classmate, Donna Ludwig.

The flip side to "Donna," though, would give Valens' fame as it would

be the title of the 1987 movie about his life, "La Bamba." In the

soundtrack, Los Lobos would take a remake of the song to #1.


The Big Bopper was a fun-loving singer-songwriter-DJ whose biggest

hit was the #4, "Chantilly Lace." He actually raps some in that hit,

saying "pick you up at eight, and don't be late." He had another top

40 hit  with the #39 song, "The Big Bopper's Wedding." He also

recorded hits like "White Lightning," "Little Red Riding Hood" and

"The Purple People Eater Meets The Witch Doctor." Richardson would be

immortalized in a #1 single nearly a year after his passing. In

January 1960, Johnny Preston reached the top of the Cash Box pop

chart with "Running Bear," a song Richardson wrote. Plus, the Big

Bopper and George Jones supplied the background "Ooom-Baahs" in the

hit song.


Richardson was 28 when he died. When his son, Jay Richardson,

was still alive, he gave his late father a new casket. The old casket was scheduled to be

auctioned off on e-Bay, with proceeds going towards a musical

designed to help keep The Big Bopper's memory alive. Jay Richardson was 54 when he died in August, 2013.


There have been misconceptions and ironies galore surrounding "The

Day The Music Died." In the movie, "The Buddy Holly Story," a cricket

infiltrates the makeshift studio where Holly and his group were

practicing. That incident wasn't the inspiration for the group naming

itself the Crickets, though. In a 1987 interview conducted by this

writer with Jerry Allison, the Crickets' drummer said the group was

inspired by a group called the Spiders. "So," Allison said, "we

decided 'let's be insects'."


In the movie "La Bamba," the coin flip between Valens and backup

musician Tommy Allsup takes place on the Clear Lake airport's runway.

Actually, it took place inside the Surf Ballroom. Allsup is believed to be alive, 82 years old, living in Azle, Texas, and

operating Common Ground Studios. He lost the coin flip but won his life.


A future Rock And Roll Hall of Famer nearly became the fourth

musician to step onto that plane. However, Dion DiMucci decided that

the plane fare ($36) was too high and passed on the trip.


Finally, perhaps the greatest irony of them all came when the late

Waylon Jennings, who like Allsup was a backing musician, gave up his

seat  to Richardson on the plane. Richardson had either a cold or the flu. That decision and what he said to Holly were things that would haunt Waylon the rest

of his life. Not long before the plane took off, Holly supposedly

told Jennings, "I hope your old bus freezes up."


And Jennings reportedly replied, "I hope your damn plane crashes."